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Brainwave Basics for Peak Achievement Training®

The Three Parts of the Peak Achievement Learning Process

The training process starts by teaching you to do something so fundamental that you will be astounded that you don’t already know how—to pay attention to how you pay attention! The conscious awareness of the way you pay attention is a fundamental skill that few people have mastered or even tried to learn.

The second step is to direct it--to develop a more controlled cycle between focusing and recharging. Recent Air Force studies of the pilots in the B2 bomber, who are very carefully selected peak performers, show that they are constantly cycling between concentrating on cockpit tasks and taking brief recharging breaks, which we call microbreaks. The Peak Achievement Training program teaches you how to focus and to recharge separately, and then combines them into a cycle. The figure shows several cycles in which Focus (yellow) and Alertness (orange) are interrupted by microbreaks. There are vertical bars every five seconds.

The third step in training is to learn to apply this cycle to enhance skills and experiences that are important to you. You will be able to identify the cycles in many of your activities, to pay attention to the cycle and understand how you do it, to video yourself and discover the sequence of your brainwave patterns as you perform important skills, and then to enhance your skills by refining the sequence.

Brainwave Basics for Peak Achievement Training

When the Air Force designed the B-2 Bomber, they knew that it would be a highly complex airplane to fly, with many different tasks to do, despite the many automated systems. They sponsored a number of complex studies of the human factors involved in optimizing pilot performance, many of them performed by Dr. Barry Sterman of UCLA and the Sepulveda Veterans Administration Hospital. In a brilliant series of studies, Dr. Sterman, who is a pioneer in EEG (brainwave) biofeedback research, measured the brainwaves of pilots and others, while evaluating their performance in tasks that simulate aspects of flying. He discovered that various parts of the pilot’s brains were constantly cycling between a processing mode and an “idling” or recharging mode, in which the brain conserved energy and refreshed its stores of vital nutrients.

If you wish to understand his fascinating findings and the fundamentals of Peak Achievement Trainingä, we need to review a few fundamentals about brainwaves and the brain. I’ll try to simplify this as much as I can, by making some broad generalizations. However, if you are in a hurry or just not technically minded, you can skip ahead to the section titled Fundamentals of Peak Achievement: A Summary.

Dr. Sterman broke down the complex brainwave patterns he saw by analyzing how strong the output was at various frequencies. The term frequency refers to the number of times the waveform goes up and down (cycles) per second (called Hertz, or Hz.). You can take any waveform, no matter how complex it looks, and break it down into the amount of energy that it has at each frequency. This figure shows the filtered brainwave pattern from the prefrontal part of the brain (middle of the forehead) with a time scale of five divisions per second. You can see a large, almost regular pattern near the end. This idling rhythm at 9-11 cycles per second, usually called the alpha rhythm, occurs more frequently when someone is relaxing with the eyes closed. It is much more prominent when you are recording from the back of the head.

This figure shows the frequency breakdown that the Peak Achievement Trainer performs on the raw brainwave. As the Spectrogram scrolls from the right (now) to the left (past), each colored vertical bar shows the analysis of a short period of the brainwave pattern. It separates out the amount of energy at each frequency (on the vertical axis), and shows a color corresponding to its intensity. As the scale at the bottom of the figure shows, more intense energy produces more intense color. Generally, brainwave patterns will show the most energy from 0 to 7 cycles and a high energy alpha brainwave stripe at 9-11 cycles.

Dr. Sterman divided the frequencies into chunks, so that he could look at how much energy output he could detect from 1-3 Hz., 3-5 Hz., 5-7 Hz., and so on, by every 2 Hz. He did not use the traditional Greek letter analysis of brainwaves, which includes delta (0-4 Hz.), theta (4-8 Hz.), alpha (8-13 Hz.) and beta (13-30 Hz.), because he thought it was too inexact. The relationship between these Greek letters and various states of consciousness, such as sleep, daydreaming or reverie, relaxation, and focusing is now known to be very imprecise, and in some cases, misleading, so I’ll only use them to designate these frequency ranges.

The Prefrontal Cortex

One of the major complications here is that brainwaves and their frequencies correspond to different experiences as you look in different locations on the scalp. For our purposes, the most important distinction is between the frontal lobe and the “back” of the brain, which includes central, parietal, temporal, and occipital locations. Very roughly, you can think of the frontal lobe as the part of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain, forward of the lines from the front of the ears to about an inch in front of the very top of the head. The prefrontal lobe, which extends behind your forehead and then folds to lie on top of the roof of your mouth, is the part of the brain that is responsible for integrating various aspects of your experience and making decisions about how you act on them. The back of the brain is primarily involved in processing specific information, such as the sensory inputs from your eyes, ears, and body. The two systems, specific and non-specific, are each primarily connected to different parts of the thalamus, an egg-shaped nucleus in the middle of the brain, which relays information to the cortex.

The central part of the prefrontal cortex is strongly influenced by a network of nerve fibers carrying messages which help us to consciously focus on interesting and/or important experiences that are useful for survival. These fibers contain the key neurotransmitter, dopamine.

The Executive Attention Network

Recent studies of the brain by researchers using powerful new technologies such as PET and SPECT scanning and f-MRI have led to the discovery of the Executive Attention Network, the part of the brain that is most involved in directing where we focus our attention. In other words, it choreographs the dance of the brain, by turning on and off various parts of the brain that are necessary to direct our attention to certain aspects of our experience. According to a Scientific American Library book, Images of Mind, by Dr. Michael Posner (a cognitive psychologist) and Dr. Marcus Raichle (a PET scanner), the Executive Attention Network is located in the cleft or fissure between the two hemispheres of the brain, right below the midline of the scalp, an inch or two forward of the vertex, the very top of the head. This part of the anterior cingulate cortex may actually be the central part of the brain’s master delegator, somewhat like the executive assistant to the Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, responsible for carrying out the CEO’s orders by coordinating the resources of the corporation.

The Peak Achievement Trainer uses brainwave Sensors located a little forward of this point—in the middle of the forehead--to detect what is happening in the central prefrontal cortex and the Executive Attention Network.

When the Executive Attention Network encounters an experience that the brain judges to be unfamiliar, an experience that can’t be easily categorized on the basis of prior experience, it turns on the prefrontal cortex, along with many other regions of the cortex. As a result, we become aware or conscious of this new information. The processing of this new information is spread widely across the cortex at first, producing a lot of high frequency messages from one part of the cortex to another.

The Cortex Idles to Save Energy

However, continuing this high frequency processing indefinitely is not a very efficient way to run the brain, since it takes a tremendous amount of energy. Even with the energy conservation measures it uses, the brain takes about 20% of the body’s blood flow and up to 65% of its metabolic energy. Taking any more energy than it absolutely needs would be a real disadvantage to our survival.

The major energy conservation measure that is implemented by the Executive Attention Network, in collaboration with the thalamus, is to place parts of the brain that are not needed into “idle mode”. As it sorts out the parts of the cortex that aren’t necessary for a particular task, it sends them a message to slow down or turn off the energy consuming, high frequency processing. With additional similar experiences, the Executive Attention Network forms habitual ways of information processing that save energy by idling more and more of the cortex via these messages. When it is in idling mode, the brain performs a number of system maintenance tasks that can improve subsequent memory and information processing. However, there are virtually no EEG studies of the role of the midline prefrontal cortex in learning and memory. Since the rich network of dopaminergic fibers is centered there, it may behave very differently than other regions of the cortex.

The EEG Detects Idling Rhythms

These messages to the cortex that put it in idling mode are rhythmic brainwaves—idling rhythms--that can affect large portions of the cortex at the same time. In fact, they are a very large portion of what we see in the visible EEG. Furthermore, since the waveforms of many of these idling rhythms are irregular (not smooth sine waves), they have overtones, which show up on the Peak Achievement Trainer as higher frequency (beta and above) brainwave outputs.

The higher frequency brainwaves that are produced when regions of the cortex are turned on are much harder to detect with an EEG instrument for three reasons:
  1. There are several layers of tissue that surround the brain, and then the scalp and the skin. Higher frequency brainwaves find it much harder to go through these various layers.
  2. About 95% of the input to any cortical cell comes from other cortical cells, either locally or via longer fibers. Impulses travel in one direction and then loop back. Since the timing and direction of these loops is random, the net effect is that most of the activity is offset by other random activity, producing very little electrical voltage on the surface of the scalp.
  3. The EEG is most sensitive to currents that run in the direction of a straight line between the electrodes (ear and forehead), roughly in the direction that the idling rhythms run, from the thalamus in the center of the head outwards.

Therefore, the brainwaves that are monitored by the Peak Achievement Trainer are primarily idling rhythms rather than indications that important information processing is going on in the cortex underneath the Sensor.

The Peak Achievement Trainer Detects the Absence of the Idling Rhythms

The Peak Achievement Trainer is designed to detect the absence of the idling messages rather than the high frequency activity. Although there is evidence that there are organized brainwave rhythms in the beta range, and that they may represent messages from one part of the cortex to another, the empirical finding is that when you focus intensely, the brainwave Sensor near the Executive Attention Network almost always shows less output voltage at all the frequencies from 1 to 37 Hz. This decrease in output was originally labeled as Concentration in the older software. In the new FocusedAlert protocols, we have chosen to create a measurement of Focus that (more intuitively) increases as you concentrate more, by applying the formula:

Focus = 100 – Concentration

Aspects of Focus

The word “focus” can be confusing, since it may be used in several different ways:
  1. Denoting the object of your attention—that is, what you are paying attention to.
  2. Changing the clarity of an image—that is, by turning a camera lens.
  3. The degree of single-pointedness of attention—narrow vs. broad.
  4. The duration of paying attention to a particular object.

It would probably be clearest if I indicated the particular use of “focus” each time I used it, but this would lead to many long and awkward sentences. Since most of the uses of “focus” in this Manual will refer to the third meaning, I will adopt the convention that when focus is used alone as a noun, it refers to the degree of single-pointedness of attention--the narrower it is, the more focused. Capitalizing “Focus” will refer to the particular measurement we defined previously, unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence. The word “concentration” in lower case will be synonymous with this meaning of focus. In upper case, “Concentration” refers to the measurement in the older software. As a verb, “focus” or “concentrate” used without further description will refer to making your attention single-pointed.

The first definition will be indicated by using “focus on”. The second definition will rarely be used here. When it is, I will substitute “clarifying”. When the fourth definition is needed, I will use “Focus Time” to refer to the duration, as formalized by our measurement.

Lessons From Peak Performers: The Air Force Pilots

When Dr. Sterman examined the brainwaves of pilots doing simulated landing tasks, he found that the idling rhythms were suppressed in the parts of the brain that were being used at the time. He was able to fine-tune his findings by looking at these brainwaves in various control conditions, in which the pilots did only part of the task. To make a long story very short, Sterman concluded that in the back of the brain the processing of sensory inputs was associated with decreases in the idling rhythms from 11-15 Hz., while more complex thinking decreased idling rhythms from 8-12 Hz. The harder the task was, the more that these rhythms were suppressed.

In fact, Dr. Sterman was able to pick the best 6 pilots--those who were eventually selected as B2 bomber instructors--by measuring how well they suppressed the idling rhythms in the parietal lobe. This approach turned out to be more accurate, by itself, than all the other measures that the Air Force used in making this selection.

The Focusing and Recharge Cycle

Studies of pilots in the cockpit, as they actually flew their planes, showed that there was a short burst of idling rhythm between the individual tasks that they performed in the cockpit. The better pilots needed a shorter rest period before starting to focus again. We call this recharging period a microbreak.

In fact, there is evidence that this kind of cycling between concentration and the microbreak is a basic way in which the brain functions. For example, there are studies that show that when we read, there is a brief idling rhythm in the visual cortex when we come to the end of a line and move on to the next.

Dr. Sterman performed a study which showed that these idling rhythms decrease right after a person is presented with a target to respond to, and then increase again when they finish processing their response to the stimulus. In the back of the brain, this idling rhythm was an 8-12 Hz. (alpha) burst that increased as they became more familiar with the task, and it became habituated. As he looked at sites that were further forward in the brain, he saw that there was also an idling rhythm at 5 to 7 Hz.

There are also good, common sense reasons to believe that the brain is set up to cycle between focusing and taking a recharging microbreak. Even the best of us cannot concentrate forever. We need our breaks. They are built in to our work and school day. The concept that each of us has an “attention span” that increases as we mature from child to adult, and then decreases in old age is a clear reflection of this well accepted concept. People who fail to regularly take these necessary microbreaks between tasks set themselves up for stress-related diseases because they accumulate the tension and anxiety from the continuous effort in their minds, brains, and bodies.

The most fundamental lesson of Peak Achievement Training is that we all need to cycle continuously between focusing and taking a recharging microbreak in order to consistently be at our best without overtaxing our brains.

The Prefrontal Cortex and Executive Attention Network, New Learning, and the Cycle

The prefrontal cortex is also capable of alternating between focusing and idling. When things are familiar to us, it can idle, and let the other parts of the brain carry out their habitual ways of processing inputs, turning on and off in well established sequences. When they are unfamiliar, the prefrontal cortex and the Executive Attention Network get turned on. They have the role of bringing these new experiences into conscious awareness and figuring out how to process them by activating other centers of the brain. Dr. Sterman’s research indicated that the brainwaves of the frontal lobe, including the sites near the Executive Attention Network, also show cycles when the individual is continually involved in detecting a series of targets. Right after a target is presented, the idling rhythm is suppressed, only to return in about half a second. After an event, the frontal cortex finishes its processing and goes into idle before the back of the brain does. The prefrontal lobe idling rhythm is primarily in the mid-theta range, between 5 to 7 Hz.

By using the multiple displays of the previous Peak Achievement Trainer software to examine the brainwaves of my students, I have been able to see their patterns as they focused and did a number of other things. At first, I looked for the relationship between concentration and the decrease in 5-7 Hz. rhythms at the midline site close to the hairline. I found that this was the clearest indicator of concentration that I had observed in my clinical experience. The Spectrogram display permitted me to look at the voltage output at each frequency. From 2 to about 20 cycles, I saw clearly that as I and others focused, the voltage output decreased across the board, at all frequencies. This was less clearly true from 1 to 37 Hz. For example, the far left side and the right side of this figure is focusing, while the right side is recharging.

Dr. Sterman had actually noticed the same thing, from about 5 to 15 cycles, all the frequencies that he measured, at virtually all the brainwave recording sites he tried. Technically, this is called “event related desynchronization”. In the frontal lobe, this suppression is followed by the return of the theta (5-7 Hz.) idling rhythm in about half a second, particularly after we see a target, rather than an unimportant control stimulus.

When people learn to suppress the idling rhythms, their attention problems clear up. Several large studies, now being submitted for publication, show that the suppression of theta and or alpha (depending on age and recording site) is largely responsible for the success of other brainwave training protocols in treating people with attention deficit disorder. Most all of the brainwave training protocols for treating attention deficit disorder have rewarded students for decreasing theta and/or alpha at central or frontal sites. These decreases were much more consistently related to successful treatment than the changes in higher frequencies that were also evaluated. Using a protocol that teaches the student to enhance beta may actually slow down training, because the feedback is less precise and more confusing than that provided by the Peak Achievement Trainerä. It takes about ten sessions for a typical student to understand that type of brainwave biofeedback; almost everyone will understand this type of neurofeedback during the first few minutes.

There is a common misperception that increases in alpha rhythms denote peak performance. Actually, this comes from studies of the back part of the brain, which actually show that as people master a particular skill, alpha increases. However, this is actually a reflection of the brain’s tendency for efficient operations, shutting off more and more unnecessary processing as the skill becomes a habit.

Interest or Absorption in Events Decreases Idling Rhythms

It is clear that interesting or important events also cause this decrease in the idling rhythm in the prefrontal cortex and the Executive Attention Network. In Sterman’s study, the targets produced a larger rapid decrease in the 5-7 Hz. idling rhythm than the control stimuli that they didn’t need to respond to. In working with my students, I have found that anytime I can entice them to become more interested in what they are doing, they generally respond by decreasing their brainwave output across the board from 1-37 Hz.

Becoming absorbed in a particular experience is closely related to being interested in it. In fact, absorption can be thought of as being a result of one-pointed focus on the experience—a focus so intense that other inputs, ideas, or conversations with others or yourself are ignored. In working with students, I find that it is this type of single-pointed focus and interest that is most successful in inhibiting the idling rhythms.

Measuring and Training Alertness

These FocusedAlert protocols also allow you to measure and train what we believe is another dimension of attention: Arousal or Alertness. We have chosen to use the word Alertness for this dimension. We believe it is fundamentally independent from the single-pointed Focus measurement. In particular, it responds to the state of higher alertness/arousal in which intense effort marshals your resources to react--for example, when the ball is coming right at you.

Although at this time we intend to keep the precise formulas we use as trade secrets, we can say that we mathematically eliminate the effects of Focus on the brainwave pattern, and then measure the effects of the stimulation from the Reticular Activating System (RAS) on the pacemaker cells in the reticular nucleus of the thalamus, which produce the EEG idling rhythms we observe at the cortical level. The two measures are mathematically independent, and we have seen instances where they function independently: You can increase or decrease one without changing the other. However, it is clearly true that most people will usually increase their Alertness in order to enhance their Focus. There are many circumstances in which it may be useful to train people to concentrate more calmly, minimizing the increase in Alertness.

It appears that it is much more difficult to sustain Alertness than Focus--the peaks last for a much shorter time. Alertness may be related to the release of adrenaline, noradrenalin, and dopamine from nerve terminals; when these are exhausted, restocking them may take time. Trying to increase Alertness may also release adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. Since this adrenaline has to travel through the blood stream, it may produce an increase in the Alertness measure with a longer latency and slower decrease, which will add to the effects of the RAS-mediated activation.

Since the neurotransmitters, neuromodulators, and hormones necessary to support Alertness are in limited supply, one of the major goals of training may be to teach people to conserve their Alertness by minimizing its expenditure when it isn't needed.

Another way to think about this is that we want to find the optimal point on the Yerkes-Dodson curve--the inverted-U shape curve relating performance to arousal--for performing at the particular moment.

This basic truth was recognized many years ago from experiments with animals. The highest point of the inverted U is at the middle levels of arousal. They found that the location of the peak varies depending upon how complex the task is. Simple tasks, such as assembly line work, which can be accomplished with a succession of narrow foci of attention, produce a higher optimum. More complex tasks, such as writing, which require integrating a wider variety of information, are best performed at lower levels of arousal.

This presumes that higher levels of arousal (Alertness) are generally related to a narrower focus of attention. Actually, this isn’t always true, as our experience with Peak Achievement Training has shown us. Although it is sometimes difficult to do so, the two can be controlled rather independently, so that, for example, you can learn to focus more intensely at lower levels of Alertness and conserve mental energy. This is the combination we need in order to successfully survive hours of lectures and business meetings.

When you become too stimulated or aroused, another problem develops—your attention becomes harder to control. It shifts around, focusing on one thing and then another, but you can’t sustain its focus on any one thing for very long. Often, emotional events receive the bulk of your attention. We experience this as distraction, anxiety, or, in an extreme, a panic reaction. When this happens, we may say that it is hard to focus, but this problem is really quite different than the problem we have when we don’t have enough energy to move from a wide, diffuse focus to a narrow one. It is a problem caused by high energy, rather than low vigor or arousal. This is the other reason why the Yerkes-Dodson curves decrease at high arousal or Alertness.

Since you don’t want to be at either extreme for optimal performance, but rather someplace in the middle, the FocusedAlert protocols are designed to reinforce the optimum range between an upper and a lower limit.

Attention as an Adjustable Flashlight Beam

One analogy is particularly useful in understanding attention. Try thinking of it as being like an adjustable beam flashlight, which you can tune between a wide, diffuse focus on many different aspects of your experience at a particular moment, and a narrow, single-pointed focus on one aspect of the experience at that moment. You can focus this beam in a number of different directions, or in its widest mode, use it to attend dimly to many things at once. When you focus more diffusely, as you do during a microbreak, you are not conscious of any particular aspect of the experience, but rather take in all of it at once.

You can also adjust the brightness or intensity of the beam of this special flashlight. We generally do this by turning the energy consumption control—the Alertness or arousal level, which enhances our capacity to pay attention. During new, interesting, or demanding experiences, the beam is on high intensity. This generally tends to make your focus more narrow and absorbed, but it can also produce a brighter beam that is somewhat wider. The Executive Attention Network has stopped idling and turned on the higher frequency processing of the surrounding frontal lobe and other areas of the brain in order to find an appropriate response.

In contrast, when you respond habitually to an experience, the prefrontal cortex and the Executive Attention Network is not involved, large portions of the cortex are idling, and very little of your attention is used to form the response. The flashlight beam is on a lower intensity. This response is not sensed to be as conscious as is your reaction to a new or important experience.

At higher levels of arousal, you start to lose control of the flashlight beam, as anxiety and possibly panic cause it to shift quickly from one object of attention to another.

Fundamentals of Peak Achievement Training: A Summary

1. The Peak Achievement Trainer responds to single-pointed focus, interest, and/or absorption in any experience by changing its visual displays and the sounds that it produces. It detects when your prefrontal cortex and Executive Attention Network are not producing idling rhythms.
2. You will learn to use these signals to enhance your ability to cycle between focusing and brief periods of recharging or idling, called microbreaks. We all need to cycle continuously in order to be at our best consistently without overtaxing our brains.
3. By strengthening your ability to concentrate, to recharge, and to easily and flexibly switch between them, Peak Achievement Training will enhance your functioning, decrease your stress, and improve your mental and physical well being.
4. Many of your important activities have built-in cycles of focusing and microbreaks; by understanding these cycles and strengthening your abilities, you will learn to do them more effectively.
5. Learning to control your Alertness allows you to more consistently reach the optimal zone for a particular activity. Alertness is used here to indicate the degree of arousal and the amount of mental energy needed to sustain it. Enhancing your capacity to maintain Alertness by practicing and learning how not to waste your mental energy will enhance your reserves and decrease fatigue.

Types of Peak Achievement Training

Even without the Neureka! protocol, there are twelve different and complementary types of training which are possible using the Peak Achievement Trainer:

1. Strengthening the ability of the Brain's Executive Attention Network to momentarily focus attention.
2. Strengthening the ability of the midbrain to momentarily intensify alertness/arousal.
3. Strengthening the ability of the Executive Attention Network to sustain focused attention.
4. Strengthening the ability of the midbrain to sustain alertness/arousal.
5. Simultaneously increasing Focus and Alertness to meet a heavy demand.
6. Keeping Focus up while lowering Alertness/Arousal to decrease stress.
7. Focusing attention on parts of the body that the coach wishes to work with.
8. Train the user to take brief, relaxing microbreaks which recharge the brain.
9. Find the best possible degree of alertness/arousal to perform particular activities optimally.
10. Perform arbitrary sequences of concentration, alertness, and microbreaks.
11. Discover and enhance performance of the sequences that are optimal for particular activities.
12. Perform these sequences despite distractions such as self-talk and crowd noise.


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